Suppose you had attended the completion of Central Park station on Manchester’s Metrolink network and then decided to catch the first tram out. You would have waited…
…and waited some more. In fact you’d have waited seven long years for that first tram. When Central Park was completed, it immediately became the architecturally imposing poster child for British light rail, a landmark structure that delivered a knockout visual punch on behalf of Britain’s trams; or at least it would have done, but for the minor detail that it didn’t actually have a tram service. It all happened because the government of the early 2000s blew hot and cold when it came to light rail.
Those years were a boom time for light rail scheme promotion in the UK, if not actual light rail schemes themselves. During the 1990s, several light systems had opened, with varying degrees of success. Manchester’s pioneering Metrolink was the most successful of them all (excluding the Docklands Light Railway, which was and remains more of a lightweight metro system with full segregation, than a light rail system as we usually think of them).
Having opened with two lines in the early 1990s, Metrolink had already seen a third line added, and local planners had several more planned routes they wanted to introduce. Local Passenger Transport Executive GMPTE put forward a proposal called the “Big Bang”, which would create four new Metrolink routes: to Manchester Airport, East Didsbury, Ashton-under-Lyne and finally, Rochdale via Oldham (a route which had been identified when Metrolink first opened). Deputy prime minister John Prescott gave the Big Bang the go-ahead in March 2000.
And when his now-legendary 10-year Transport Plan was published in summer 2000, it contained promises for 25 new light rail lines, including Manchester’s (see section 6.61).
The story of the other cities which tried, and eventually failed, to get their long-cherished but generally unutterably barmy light rail schemes funded through the 10-year Transport Plan before its ignominious abandonment, I have told you before (see here). But even Manchester’s proposals, despite being far more feasible than those of most of its rivals, got sucked into the post-10-year Transport Plan chaos.
Unfortunately, at exactly the same time, Manchester was embarking on the regeneration of the Central Park area, just north-east of the city centre. This huge 450-acre site, almost abandoned after the closure of the manufacturing industries which occupied it, would be redeveloped to provide a new headquarters for Greater Manchester Police, a regional headquarters for multinational Fujitsu, and a postgraduate research and science park developed by all four of Manchester’s universities.
Happily, the Central Park regeneration area was just north of the railway tracks on which the existing conventional National Rail services to Oldham and Rochdale operated. The plan was for the Metrolink Oldham/Rochdale line to replace these services, but by relocating the Metrolink tracks slightly northwards, they would be able to run through Central Park itself. The area would need good transport links, and the Central Park developers felt (you are free to argue the merits of this in the comments section) that bus routes alone would not be sufficiently high-profile nor appear permanent enough, whereas a light rail link would. So a flagship transport interchange called The Gateway was planned, where buses would meet Metrolink. Its £36m cost was funded by the DfT (through the Local Transport Plan process, to the tune of £20m), GMPTE from its Metrolink advance works budget (£11m) and £5m from the European Regional Development Fund.
The difficulty was all around the timings. The Gateway needed to be built at the same time as Central Park itself in order to prove that the city planners were serious about the regeneration, and persuade tenants to move in. So the station had to be built before the cheques were actually signed for the new Metrolink extension to Oldham and Rochdale, and the other lines in the Big Bang. Prescott might have ‘approved’ the Big Bang in March 2000, but work in the transport sector for any length of time and you’ll discover that the word of a cabinet secretary isn’t worth quite as much as an actual cheque, as cities on the Midland Main Line recently found out when the electrification scheme they had been promised by one transport secretary, vanished under the auspices of his successor.
But Central Park’s landmark transport interchange simply couldn’t be delayed. Urban regeneration company New East Manchester told the House of Commons Transport Select Committee that the commitment to Central Park evidenced by The Gateway was crucial in securing occupiers’ promises to move in. So construction of The Gateway continued to a design by Aukett Fitzroy Robinson. All being well, with Prescott having promised the cash, the trams would arrive shortly after its planned completion in 2005.
So what does £36m buy you when it comes to a tram station? Well, in this case it buys you an elevated tram station so that a dual carriageway road can pass underneath it, with a “bus station” (the architects words; I’d describe it more as a lay-by with two very conventional bus shelters) alongside it, and a “vehicle drop off” (again, it’s a lay-by).
The money was clearly spent on the tram station element of the scheme. It shows, though.
Folding over the platforms and the staircases and lifts which lead up to them is a huge, circular, copper clad, roof. For sheer drama, I don’t think you’ll find a better tram station in the country. Over a decade old now, it has weathered with the verdigris typical of copper, so is a beautiful textured green colour. One segment of the roof is glazed, allowing daylight through to the platforms. The roof is strengthened underneath by steel ribs, and is supported at its lower end by spindle-shaped steel legs. From above, the roof is supported by cables, which tie back to a slender steel needle, which leans away from the station. Its height means it is visible from all around, fulfilling the brief of acting as a literal landmark.
But back to the Metrolink story. The years following the publication of the 10-year Transport Plan were not kind to it. The tram plans of the cities looking for their slice of funding crash and burned, and so did the 10-year Transport Plan itself. At the same time, the cost estimates for Manchester’s Big Bang Metrolink expansion rose. A significant funding gap opened up between Prescott’s promised government contribution to the Big Bang, and what it was going to take to complete it.
Prescott’s successor as transport secretary, Alastair Darling, was appointed in 2002 and soon gave every impression of being wholly fed up by the light rail fiasco that had unfolded across the country. One-by-one he cancelled the projects cities had worked hard, if in many cases utterly misguidedly, to develop. Included in Darling’s bonfire of the tram vanity projects was Manchester’s much more worthy Big Bang scheme, which he cancelled in 2004. There would be no trams through the nearly complete Central Park station, which now looked rather like a very large, very stylish, and very expensive white elephant. But the decision was made to complete Central Park station – it was duly finished off in 2005 – and try to convince the government to change its mind over Metrolink expansion.
A vigorous campaign was launched by the Manchester Evening News to “Get Our Metrolink Back On Track” and after two solid years of negotiation (and, helpfully, yet another change in transport secretary – they come along as frequently as Victoria line trains) the government agreed to fund a scaled-back “Little Bang” in 2006. The planned Metrolink extensions were scaled back, terminating short of their originally planned destinations, but it was better than nothing. It meant, at long last, that rails would be laid through Central Park station.
But the cancellation and partial reinstatement of the Big Bang had added years to the programme, and the Metrolink route through Central Park looked like a railway alignment which had been abandoned for years, rather than one which was theoretically under construction (there are some cracking, borderline post-apocalyptic photos of the route in this 2006 magazine promoting East Manchester regeneration; see pages 16-21). 2011 was now the target opening date, and thanks to a few more delays along the way, it was actually 2012 before the first Metrolink tram pulled into Central Park station.
By that time, after an abortive attempt to bring in a congestion charge to raise money, GMPTE and the Greater Manchester councils had pulled together a funding package that allowed the Big Bang to be completed between 2011 and 2014, most notably extending Metrolink south to the Airport. The rest, as they say, is history. The system has gone from strength to strength, and has become so busy that a second route across Manchester city centre has proven necessary; it opened in 2017. And just last month, track-laying began on a new line to Trafford Park, due to open in 2020.
Some of Metrolink’s city centre stations have gained some impressive – for a British light rail scheme, anyway – canopies in recent years.
Metrolink has always had some impressive heritage structures on stations it inherited from the mainline railway network, too. But there’s nothing else on its network quite as eye-catching as Central Park. Seven years is a long time to wait for a station to open, but the wait was worth it.
Further Reading and Bibliography
Aukett Fitzroy Robinson’s information sheet on Central Park station, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.